December 10 2021 — Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion. On May 26, 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis. In the years since his death, Merton has been the subject of several biographies. Fifty years later, his death remains mysterious. In 1997, James W. Douglass claimed that Merton had been assassinated by agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 2016, theologian Matthew Fox made a similar claim. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY
UPDATE (December 19 2021) — Hugh Turley and David Martin are co-authors of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation.
They are working on a follow-up book on Thomas Merton’s death with the working title, Thomas Merton’s Betrayers.
Covert Action Magazine just published a very important story: Was America’s Outspoken Catholic Priest and Best-Selling Author, Thomas Merton, “Eliminated” Because of His Outspoken Opposition to the Vietnam War?
As with all such questionable events in our history, there is a great deal to be learned from examining the earliest reports on Thomas Merton’s death.
Turley and Martin found three missing historic documents from Thailand, a doctor’s certificate, the death certificate, and the Foreign Service Report on the Death of an American Citizen.
They came to the conclusion that Father Merton’s murder was disguised as an accident.
They believe US president Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the assassination of because of Merton’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War.
Merton’s writings, until the 1960s, had been almost all of a spiritual nature. In 1960, however, he wrote to a fellow Catholic priest and confidante, “It seems to me that it is very necessary to take a political stand in these times and I have been, I regret to say, foolishly apolitical.”
His primary concern at that time was the danger of a nuclear war. His fear would be heightened by the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. He had to circulate his powerful treatise Peace in the Post-Christian Era in mimeograph form, though, because the Abbot Primate of his order in France had forbidden his publishing any book dealing with questions of war and peace as political writing inappropriate for a Catholic monk.
He also had an extensive and influential mailing list, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s wife Ethel, whose family, the Skakels, were major benefactors of Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery, where Merton had resided since late 1941. Moreover, his writings carried a lot of weight because of the power of his prose and his great moral authority.
As the 1960s wore on and the Vietnam War heated up, his attention turned more toward opposition to President Lyndon Johnson’s futile pursuit of victory in that horribly destructive war. The prominent anti-war Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, who looked up to Merton for guidance, was one of his most frequent correspondents.
Although the general public might not have been aware of Merton’s anti-war activities, they could hardly have escaped the attention of our clandestine community. A passage from Phillip F. Nelson’s review of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton could well be telling:
“A document I recently obtained, from Lyndon Johnson’s White House files—apparently kept in his well-known “mean letters folders/file cabinets”—was a letter dated February 20, 1965, from Rev. Thomas Merton. I believe it is but one document that might have caused the name of Thomas Merton to be added to other lists, both within the White House and those being maintained farther up, and across the opposite side, of the Potomac River, in Langley, Virginia. For Merton to have written Johnson, challenging his use of “sheer force” to contain “the spread of Communism in Asia . . . seems to me immoral and unjust, when they are used without wisdom” would be to question not only Johnson’s morality and wisdom, but probably his manhood as well. There were certain boundaries that could not be crossed with Lyndon B. Johnson, and those three would have represented, to him, three strikes.“
We should be reminded that in December of 1968, the year in which Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, even though Nixon had won the election in November, Johnson was still the president.
At the time of Merton’s death, the Thai government was also closely cooperating with the U.S. military in its prosecution of the nearby Vietnam War, which included the mass assassination campaign known as the Phoenix Program, in which the CIA was also deeply involved.
One troublesome American monk would be just one more obstacle to victory in Vietnam to be removed, and there he was, right next door, far removed from scrutiny back home.
The documents cited in this article can be found at: The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton.
The CIA has strongly denied any responsibility in Father Merton’s death. Merton’s Wikipedia page does not mention the CIA once. What do you think?
END of UPDATE
On December 10, 1968, Merton was at a Red Cross retreat center named Sawang Kaniwat in the town of Samutprakarn near Bangkok, Thailand, attending a monastic conference.
After giving a talk at the morning session, he was found dead later in the afternoon in the room of his cottage, wearing only shorts, lying on his back with a short-circuited Hitachi floor fan lying across his body.
His associate, Jean Leclercq, states: “In all probability the death of Thomas Merton was due in part to heart failure, in part to an electric shock.”
Since there was no autopsy, there was no suitable explanation for the wound in the back of Merton’s head, “which had bled substantially.” [Wikipedia]
In 1997, James W. Douglass claimed that Merton had been assassinated by agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 2016, theologian Matthew Fox made a similar claim.
In 2018, Hugh Turley and David Martin published “The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton : An Investigation.” The authors dispute the claim of accidental electrocution.
Turley and Martin presented their findings this summer (2018) in Rome at the Thomas Merton Symposium.
Most people now agree that the story of an accidental electrocution is not believable.
The CIA has strongly denied any responsibility in Father Merton’s death. His Wikipedia page does not mention the CIA once… Perhaps, an exhumation of Thomas Merton’s body could settle the issue.
Documentary : The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton
The 2015 documentary “The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton” recounts the monk’s life in 1968 and explores his crucial yet sometimes controversial pursuit of interfaith dialogue. The program was written and produced by Louisville filmmaker Morgan Atkinson.
“The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton is the story of Merton in the last year of his life, embarking on his greatest journey. It’s a story of adventure and search that takes the viewer from his home at the Abbey of Gethsemani, across America in the turbulent year of 1968 and finally to Asia for meetings with the Dalai Lama and other spiritual seekers.
The purpose of the journey? As always with Merton he seeks a fuller union with God. He believed serving as a bridge between west and east was one way in which his call could be lived out. The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton celebrates the triumph of all that was gained by his journey, reflects on the tragedy of what was lost with his death and considers why Merton’s life and work challenges us today.“
Thomas Merton — Wikipedia
Did the CIA kill a turbulent, war-critical Catholic monk? — Irish Times
Merton – CIA Link? — The Catholic Review (CIA Website)
This turbulent monk: Did the CIA kill vocal war critic Thomas Merton? — The Irish Times
On This Day — Did the CIA Kill Father Louis Thomas Merton? (December 10 1968)
On This Day — Did the CIA Kill Father Louis Thomas Merton? (December 10 1968) [New Book: Thomas Merton’s Betrayers]